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Flat Chested, For Real, After Breast Cancer

  |   By Beth Kaufman

I felt the lump; my doctors did not. Neither my gynecologist nor my radiologist. I had a sonogram; it showed nothing. Meanwhile, I was walking around with a lump the size of an orange and could barely breathe.

I knew they were wrong. My husband sang the familiar tune of, you always have to be right! I wanted so bad to be wrong this time. But in my gut, I knew I was right in assuming I had breast cancer.

A month later, I received a letter from the hospital stating, no cancer, see you in a year. While I momentarily celebrated at the mailbox, I still knew they were wrong. But, I’ll roll with them for a while. After all,  it was the hospital where Ted Kennedy was being treated for brain cancer; they have to know what they are doing.

Two months later the lump felt bigger, my armpit was throbbing, and something had to be done. I called the radiologist and told her if what I had was not cancer; it needed to be aspirated or taken out. Two days later, I had an appointment with her at 8:00 am and the breast surgeon at 8:30 am. At about 8:15, she pranced into the waiting room with a golf tournament announcer’s voice and told me to follow her. She did not have to say it.  I knew it was cancer.

And so began the journey of my life. MRIs, pet scans, biopsies, tumor markers, and head spinning.

Growing up, my mom always wanted me to meet a nice doctor. Let me tell you, throughout this journey; I met many. She would have been so happy!!

Because I had small breasts, I could barely fit in the special MRI machine. The doctor had to lay on a pulley, as they use in a garage to get under the table to move me back and forth. Had it not been midnight and right next door to the morgue, I would have found this amusing.

The pathologist who did the biopsy the next day looked at me and said, “yes, this looks cancerous.” With tears in my eyes, she went on to say, “I didn’t just hand you a death sentence.” I was by myself and really could have used a hug. I walked out of the hospital and got in my car and screamed f–k! Now what? I have two daughters that need me, a husband, and, I am not ready to die yet.

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Beth Kaufman

As I’m sitting in my car, my phone rang. It was my dad. He asked me how my autopsy went. I told him to hold off on ordering the brisket just yet because my boobs are not going to kill this lady and then broke up laughing because he had no idea what he just said.

With this, I drove directly to a store where I had seen the most fabulous dining room table all summer. I walked in with tears in my eyes and bought it. Because if my boobs did kill me, I hated that table on which they would serve the brisket. It was ugly and outdated. What would people think? 

When first diagnosed, one is not thinking straight. Was I going to need a mastectomy? Could I get by with just a lumpectomy? I began to bargain with the boob Gods. Please let this be a case of only a lumpectomy and perhaps some radiation. Mine are too small to kill me.

This was not the case. During chemo treatment, I found out I was positive for the BRCA gene and had an 87% chance of getting cancer in the other breast—as well as ovarian cancer. I looked at my doctor and said: “make mine a double, a mastectomy that is.” 

During the many months of treatment, I had many hours to think about my life. I hated my job, I always wanted to surf, and wanted to write and perform stand up comedy. Why haven’t I done any of these things? This go round, there might not be a “later.” 

Along the way, so many people said, “just think, you’ll have new perky boobs when all is said and done.” I, so do not have perky boobs. 

On the day of my surgery, I took a magic marker and wrote DD across my chest. They were able to spare my nipples, making my reconstructed breasts very similar looking to mine before surgery.

My chest area was tight for months after surgery. I did exercises to loosen it and the armpit area since lymph nodes were removed. I was and am still numb in this whole area. But, in the first few months after surgery one is just so excited that the cancer is gone that dealing with numbness and pain feels like one more step to healing. It becomes a part of what they call “your new normal”. Ten years later, I still can’t lift a window or carry groceries in my right hand or anything over five pounds. I could go on and on, but, I’m sure, you are getting the picture. On a side note, I will take the numbness and pain over not being here.

The summer after my surgery, I decided to start on my bucket list. I went to the beach and rented a surfboard and to learn the art of surfing.

I was having the time of my life. Paddling out, the smell of the salt air, waiting for the right wave and riding it in. I was in my glory! I felt more alive than I had in a long time. And then, paddling out, I could feel my right breast deflating. All I could think was that I did not want all of the salt water running through me and being bloated. I quickly called my doctor who assured me it was no big deal. The water would run through me, and he could inflate the expander again. So I paddled out a few more times.

As soon as I finished radiation, my right breast tore. A quarter could have fit through the hole. My doctor tried everything to close it up, but, nothing worked. At this point, I was sent to wound care where I remained for one year. Finally, they told me there was nothing more they could do to help me. Really? Did it take a year to receive this news? I had to have another operation, where they discovered I had a major case of MRSA. While in surgery this time, I totally lost the right breast. There was nothing they could do to save it. Talk about a shock waking up. Nothing could prepare me for this. It’s still a hard pill to swallow seeing myself naked. Looking back and knowing what I now know, there were a few things they could have tried along the way. Looking forward, I can’t wait to dance at my daughters’ weddings.

I have a hollow hole where a breast should be. As far as the left breast, I never did anything with it. It deflated a long time ago, yet the expander is still in there in case I change my mind one day. Mastectomy bras are a nightmare, the prostheses are heavy, lopsided, and make your clothes look matronly. The bras are expensive. Yes, insurance will cover some, I just prefer not to wear one.

On a final note, my breasts were not good to me, but, I have learned to be good to myself. My breasts have invaded my headspace for a long time. They took a good part of my life away, one that I cannot get back. And they took away my sexuality, although, I still think of myself as sexy. They also took away from my husband. He had to adjust to a new woman if you will. I always tell people that I am grateful he’s an ass man. On a serious note, most of us take our breasts for granted. If I had been younger, I wouldn’t have been able to breastfeed. I have to shop a different way now. Wider, matronly shirts are my go to, and the list goes on.

While I still feel feminine, a big part of my femininity was taken from me. But I can wear a speedo and laugh, and life goes on. My kids are thriving, and I am thriving.

The bottom line is that you know your body better than any doctor. If something feels off, don’t take no for an answer. Find a new doctor immediately. Keep going until you’re satisfied with the answers you are getting. It may just save your life like it did mine.

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Featured image: Sally Hewett
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Beth lives in Annapolis with her family. She writes and performs stand up comedy. Her passion is fundraising for pediatric cancer patients, and Gilda’s Club. You can message her anytime on her Facebook page, Make Mine a Double, a Mastectomy That Is.

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